The situation regarding avian influenza continues to evolve in Europe and globally, with reports of new outbreaks in birds and occasional infections in mammals. Sporadic human infections have been reported in countries outside the EU, while the risk to the public in the EU remains low. These are some of the findings in the latest report on avian influenza by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), and the EU reference laboratory (EURL).
Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) viruses have caused an increase of cases in wild birds, particularly in gulls, in the EU and continue to cause occasional infections in mammals. The number of outbreaks in poultry between December 2022 and March 2023 in the EU has decreased from its high point in November 2022. Abnormal mass mortality in gulls was observed in countries such as France, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Italy. The risk of infection in poultry may increase in the coming months as gulls spread inland, possibly overlapping with poultry production areas. EFSA and EURL recommends that prevention strategies should be implemented in poultry production areas.
Surveillance of susceptible mammals
Mutations associated with genetic adaptation to mammals were detected in some of the circulating viruses in both mammals and birds. In addition, recent mass mortality events in mammals such as sea lions suggest a potential transmission among mammals of the HPAI virus. In this context, EFSA and EURL scientists recommend extending and enhancing surveillance to wild and farmed mammals, particularly American mink and pigs, in certain areas where HPAI is present.
Low risk to the general population
While sporadic avian influenza infections in humans leading to severe disease and fatal outcomes have been reported, human infections remain a rare event. Most of the severe human infections reported recently from countries outside the EU were related to people exposed to sick and dead poultry who weren’t wearing personal protective equipment, particularly in backyard farms.
ECDC assesses that the risk to the general public in Europe remains low, and low to moderate for workers and other people in contact with potentially infected sick and dead birds and mammals. ECDC confirms that HPAI viruses currently in circulation are susceptible to antiviral medicines available to humans, and that these viruses preferentially bind to avian-like receptors present in birds and not to human-like receptors.
ECDC, EFSA and EURL recommend the appropriate use of personal protective equipment when in contact with birds. People exposed to infected birds or mammals should be tested and followed-up, in order to early identify potential transmission cases.